Alabama remains one of the most regressive states regarding gambling, though an informal coalition of lawmakers is looking to change that. Rep. Andy Whitt and his colleagues hope that 2024 will be the year his state can rein in its hodgepodge of black and gray market gambling. However, history has shown that Alabama is keen on prohibition, a policy that consistently backfires.
A gambling study commissioned by Gov. Kay Ivey in 2020 concluded that almost any course of action for the state was preferable to the status quo. However, many lawmakers have refused to entertain the idea of regulation, while residents continue to gamble any way they can. That includes many small illegal operators working out of gas stations, convenience stores, and even personal residences.
Not only has the state not added any new legal gambling options, it recently banned electronic bingo, which had previously been available at the state’s tribal casinos.
Many feel the state is moving in the wrong direction, so there have been calls for change. Recent proposals include the creation of a regulatory agency to battle illegal gambling, as well as a state lottery. Alabama is one of only five states where residents cannot buy a lottery ticket.
All efforts to legalize gambling have fallen short in the past, but a gradual increase in support from several parts of the state government means some hope for a successful bill in 2024.
Without Regulation, Illegal Gambling is Thriving in AL
In 2023 alone, there have been numerous examples of illegal gambling in the state, some large and some small. In June, the Decatur Police arrested eight people after they found 50 unlawful gambling machines. Meanwhile, In April, the Alabama Attorney General’s office shut down 14 illegal parlors in Jefferson County. Those facilities hosted over 2,400 slot machines.
Mobile Police arrested an 82-year-old woman and two others for possessing six casino-style “Cherry Pickers” gambling machines. Meanwhile, Lee County Sheriff’s Office says it’s receiving a high number of reports of illegal operations in gas stations and convenience stores.
But illegal activities go beyond gas stations and convenience stores. Illegal offshore gambling sites also target residents of states with few legal options. In January, the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama indicted 11 men accused of running the offshore site Red44, which yielded them $75 million in profits from 2019 to 2021.
In addition to casinos, Alabamians are trying to bet illegally on sports. During the 2022 NFL season, they tried to access legal online sportsbooks 797,000 times. The majority of attempts were tied to sportsbooks in neighboring Tennessee.
Previous Attempts To Legalize Gambling Have Ended Short
Gambling bills have been introduced yearly since 2019, but each has fallen short. The closest a bill got to legalization was in 2021 when it passed the state Senate but failed in the House. Meanwhile, lottery efforts have been going on even longer. The closest the state got to legalizing a lottery was in 1999. The proposal made it to the ballot, but the public rejected it.
This year, only one bill was proposed. The measure proposed by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, only applied to Greene County and quickly died when it returned to committee. Sen. Greg Albritton, who sponsored a 2022 proposal, was also expected to propose a measure in 2023. However, he stated that efforts must start in the House.
But passing a bill through the House might be a challenge because of two big lobbying groups. The Alabama Farmers Association (ALFA) and the Business Council of Alabama are strongly against gambling and hold powerful political influence.
House Ad Hoc Committee Exploring Options For a 2024 Bill
While the state House has historically been against a gambling bill, there’s some movement in the chamber this year. Pro-regulation lawmakers have formed what they call an “ad hoc committee” to explore what gambling options might be palatable to their peers in the House. Establishing a state lottery and a regulatory body are foremost among those plans.
Rep. Whitt, who is part of the committee, has been traveling across the state to see what legal and illegal gambling operations exist in the state. Recently, he told the Alabama Daily News about his findings:
I’ve concluded that it’s simply the wild west in Alabama when it comes to gaming.
Whitt told the publication that he witnessed 12 illegal gambling operations with electronic bingo machines on a one-day trip. The Alabama Supreme Court banned the machines last year. He added an illegal casino was discovered in a back of a gas station in his hometown.
Whitt rejects the idea that regulating gambling means that there will be any more of it:
We don’t need to expand gambling, it’s already here.
He points out that where gambling is unregulated, the state is not getting any money. If it doesn’t act now, it might miss its chance ever to do so.
The ad hoc committee has worked through the summer and expects to draft a bill to establish a lottery and a gaming regulator. The hope is to pass the bill during the 2024 legislative session and put the question to voters in the general election next fall. Alabama’s constitution requires a referendum on any proposed gambling legislation.
Support from Both Legislative Chambers
Despite the failures of 2023, a bill in 2024 could see more support. Unlike his predecessor, House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter has said he won’t stand in the way if a good bill is proposed. Meanwhile, the Senate has had more success with gambling bills in the past, while the House has obstructed them. If a bill can make it through the House in 2024, it stands a good chance in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Gov. Kay Ivey has expressed her support for gambling regulation. Although not in favor of gambling per se, since receiving the results of the study, she has been a proponent of changing the system and an advocate for voters’ right to have a say. In a press conference, she told reporters that the failure of gambling bills was among her biggest regrets of the 2023 legislative session:
I was disappointed that they did not get the gambling bill passed. Not that I am so much for gambling, but I do think the people of Alabama ought to have the right to make that decision. I wish that had passed the legislature so that people could vote it up or down in November.
Of the current 105 House Representatives, 76 are Republicans, like Ivey. If her words hold any sway with her fellow party members, we could see some lawmakers coming around on the issue in next year’s session.
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